Once Nick Melvoin joins the Los Angeles Unified School District board, he’s going to require all high school civics teachers to add a new lesson plan to their curriculum: “How To Buy An Election.”
That’s what happened on Tuesday. Melvoin and his billionaire backers dramatically outspent school board president Steve Zimmer’s campaign, making the District 4 race the most expensive in LAUSD history.
Political pundits will spend the next few days and weeks analyzing the Los Angeles school board election, examining exit polls, spilling lots of ink over how different demographic groups — income, race, religious, union membership, gender, party affiliation, and others — voted on Tuesday.
But the real winner in the race was not Nick Melvoin, but Big Money. And the real loser was not Steve Zimmer, but democracy – and LA’s children.
Melvoin’s backers -- particularly billionaires and multi-millionaires who donated directly to his campaign and to several front groups, especially the California Charter School Association (CCSA) -- outspent Zimmer’s campaign by $6.6 million to $2.7 million. Melvoin got 30, 696 votes to Zimmer’s 22,766. In other words, Melvoin spent 71% of the money to get 57% of the vote.
Here’s another way of looking at the election results: Melvoin spent $215 for each vote he received, while Zimmer spent only $121 per vote.
There’s no doubt that if the Zimmer campaign had the same war-chest that Melvoin had, he would have been able to mount an even more formidable grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign and put more money into the TV and radio air war. Under those circumstances, it is likely that Zimmer would have prevailed.
Billionaires, many of whom live far from Los Angeles, bought this election for Melvoin. Their money paid for non-stop TV and radio ads, as well as phone calls, mailers and newspaper ads (including a huge wrap-around ad on the front of Sunday’s LA Times). Melvoin’s billionaire backers paid for 44 mailers and at least $1 million on negative TV ads against Zimmer.
The so-called “Independent” campaign for Melvoin was funded by big oil, big tobacco, Enron and Walmart, and other out-of-town corporations and billionaires. They paid for Melvoin’s ugly, deceptive, and false attack ads against Zimmer, a former teacher and current school board president. Melvoin is so devoted to the corporate agenda for our schools that during the campaign he said that the school district needed a “hostile takeover.”
Among the big donors behind Melvoin and the CCSA were members of the Walton family (Alice Walton, Jim Walton, and Carrie Walton Penner) ― heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune from Arkansas, who’ve donated over $2 million to CCSA. Alice Walton (net worth: $36.9 billion), who lives in Texas, was one of the biggest funders behind Melvoin’s campaign. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflicks (net worth: $1.9 billion), who lives in Santa Cruz, donated close to $5 million since last September to the CCSA’s political action committee, including $1 million a week before the election.
Other moguls behind Melvoin and the CCSA include Doris Fisher (net worth: $2.7 billion), co-founder of The Gap, who lives in San Francisco: Texas resident John Arnold (net worth: $2.9 billion), who made a fortune at Enron before the company collapsed, leaving its employees and stockholders in the lurch, then made another fortune as a hedge fund manager; Jeff Yass, who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, and runs the Susquahanna group, a hedge fund; Frank Baxter, former CEO of the global investment bank Jefferies and Company that specialized in “junk” bonds; and Michael Bloomberg (net worth: $48.5 billion), the former New York City mayor and charter champion. Eli Broad (net worth: $7.7 billion), who hatched a plan to put half of all LAUSD students in charter schools by 2023 — an idea that Zimmer fought — donated $400,000 to CCSA last Friday, on top of $50,000 he gave in November. He made his money in real estate and life insurance.
Not surprisingly, most of these billionaires are big backers of conservative Republican candidates and right-wing causes. Several are on the boards of charter school chains.
What do the corporate moguls and billionaires want? And what did Steve Zimmer do to make them so upset?
They want to turn public schools into educational Wal-marts run on the same corporate model. They want to expand charter schools that compete with each other and with public schools in an educational “market place.” (LA already has more charter schools than any other district in the country). They want to evaluate teachers and students like they evaluate new products — in this case, using the bottom-line of standardized test scores. Most teachers will tell you that over-emphasis on standardized testing turns the classroom into an assembly line, where teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” and students are taught, robot-like, to define success as answering multiple-choice tests.
Not surprisingly, the billionaires want school employees — teachers — to do what they’re told, without having much of a voice in how their workplace functions or what is taught in the classroom. Rather than treat teachers like professionals, they view them as the out-sourced hired help.
The corporate big-wigs are part of an effort that they and the media misleadingly call “school reform.” What they’re really after is not “reform” (improving our schools for the sake of students) but “privatization” (business control of public education). They think public schools should be run like corporations, with teachers as compliant workers, students as products, and the school budget as a source of profitable contracts and subsidies for textbook companies, consultants, and others engaged in the big business of education.
Like most reasonable educators and education analysts, Zimmer has questioned the efficacy of charter schools as a panacea. When the billionaires unveiled their secret plan to put half of LAUSD students into charter schools within eight years, Zimmer led the opposition. In contrast, Melvoin is a big backer of charter schools and a big critic of the teachers union.
Now the billionaires and their charter school operators will have a majority on the school board. LA will become the epicenter of a major experiment in expanding charter schools – with the school children as the guinea pigs.
Pundits will have a field day pontificating about the LAUSD election, but in the end it’s about how Big Money hijacked democracy in LA.
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College.